Toeing the party line

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine
Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. Photo by Jessica Miglio ©2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

• Political reporter Sean Holman’s 43-minute documentary, Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline, is now free online at www.cpac.ca (Search for Whipped.) Holman’s self-narrated piece looks at how BC’s political party culture stifles public debate and democracy. It’s the kind of insightful and authoritative look you would expect from a veteran reporter of political affairs.

It’s no secret that BC MLAs very rarely vote against their own parties, but people might be surprised at just how rarely it occurs. Raking through the voting records, Holman found that a mere 0.25% (or 80 out of 32,328 votes) broke party lines between June 2001 and April 2012. By comparison, MPs in the UK voted against their parties seven times more often, he says. Holman notes you have to go back to a minority government in March 1953 to find the last time a government bill was defeated in the BC legislature.

What goes on behind the closed doors of party caucus – where the party line is supposedly decided upon and then enforced by the party whip – is a mystery. A succession of former NDP, Liberal and Social Credit MLAs explain how they were often required to vote against their own principles and the interests of their constituents in order to maintain the facade of party unity. Former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky talks candidly about how he was “ashamed” early on in his stint as an MLA to support a bill to give members a big pay raise. Why do it? Because at the time he accepted he had “to stand together” with his caucus.

Former Liberal MLA Dennis MacKay said he resigned his position because the leadership stopped consulting with its members about policy decisions and the only time he was needed was when it was time to vote.

MLAs who rebel say they were ostracized both politically and socially. They lost influence and jeopardized career opportunities. Former NDP member Michael Sather talks of “the scars” of a six-month suspension in 2006 for voting against the Tsawwassen Treaty, out of fears of port development on farmland and bird habitat. The experience led him later to back the NDP position of opposing the carbon tax, against his principles.

Holman suggests provocatively that perhaps BCers are satisfied with the status quo where the inner sanctum of the governing party wields all the power because it offers a more stable government. However, he is clearly not convinced by that line of reasoning himself and the subjects in this welcome documentary provide a compelling case for party leaderships to loosen their grip, provide more transparency and let a little more democracy flow.

In Woody Allen’s latest comedic drama Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett gives a wonderful, complex portrait of a woman trying to pull out of psychological freefall after experiencing financial ruin. When her deceitful husband’s Bernie Madoff-style schemes collapse in ignominy, Jasmine is forced to move in with her sister (Sally Hawkins), a grocery cashier in San Fran. She adjusts to the working class lifestyle, but the high-strung former Manhattan socialite seems to insult everybody with her condescending airs. Yet she still manages to cut a sympathetic figure as she desperately tries to get back on an even keel. It’s classic Allen fare, although with a more tragic than comedic undertow.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com

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